Beyond the Margins: Then, Something by Patricia Fargnoli

Then, Something

Then, Something
BY Patricia Fargnoli
(Tupelo Press, 2009)

I think of endings —

Final page of a novel
and the characters you’ve come to love
placed on the shelf,

a wave from a doorway — those slight
or heavy sadnesses —

— “Approaching Seventy,” p. 62

In her third book of poetry, Patricia Fargnoli confronts the recesses of “heavy sadnesses” with a crystallized lyricism and a sensual voice, deciphering the alternate worlds between nature and human, body and spirit. Even the title is prepositional, evoking a “somewhere” that is beyond. Sensuality is an agenda. Gentle, cautious and mindful, each poem never invades the contemplative space of silence, nor the respectful realm of white and emptiness.

From seemingly ordinary acts like walking the dog, watching the garbage man, observing the blue rain, or listening to a mockingbird, Fargnoli draws from quiet yet organic moments metaphysical questions of being to better understand — as well as accept — the time and space she approaches. What is old age? Is aging merely biological? Where does life extend and when will it stop? Although from a strict critical perspective, poetic energy and breath does not vary significantly throughout the collection, the language works hard in revealing nuanced, well-measured cadences that restore coherence as an ensemble. There is music; there are dancing notes. A central long poem, “Pemaquid Variations” is particularly vivid in orchestrating recurring leitmotifs in the midst of evoking unresolved post-September 11 sentiments. Tonal rather than contextual, each of the fifteen fragments constructs a stanzaic narrative that is at the service of both imagery and voice. Every verse contains a gravitational pull that expands skywards to an encompassing sea landscape:

XIII. Nocturne

Soft soft               soft soft now
the combers come in
and the moon’s bin of platinum
pours over the bay
and the hard sand beneath me
walking at tideline
and the sound of the water
sweet life-filled saltwater
where the sea weeds are drifting
rocking and rocking the night
wraps around me,
close as a blanket but
stretching to everywhere and
soft     soft     soft     soft
the waves
come in   in   in   in

XV. Return

Tonight, on its surface, the ocean harbors
twelve thousand stars. The sand is the sea’s brother.
Sky opens out beyond my greed to understand it, and I
am alone here, wandering across the beach,
carrying a scavenged branch as walking stick to scratch my name.

— “Permaquid Variations,” pp. 22-23

Faith as a liminal realm also figures as a theme. “Easter Morning” (p. 12), for example, is a starkly honest poem about the speaker’s difficulty in finding a spirituality that feels appropriate — a spirituality that is profound and complete enough to sustain the release of a life that is ending, that will help her brace for the mystery that follows. The poet senses there is something more, but cannot discover what it is. “I am alone in here, as if waiting/with unbelief and belief.” Facing imminent and unimaginable change, the less enfleshed part of the self which never really becomes “reluctantly old,” or “puddled, stagnant, longing for rest,” desires a deeper stability than the temporary fix of physical manifestation. The speaker imagines herself “leading crowds in my long white robe.”

Pondering the boundaries of faith and skepticism, the poet also continues to be haunted by faint traces of her childhood, and different absences in her life. Her mother, for instance, is a key figure in this light:

The mother who left in my childhood
is leaving again in my dream.

She is leaving the ghost of a town
and has gone on to the next.

She has left the cottage door open,
the chair still rocking.

My mother is leaving again from the memory
of a white double-bed,

Her hands pale on the sheets, her face
pale as she leans against the headboard.

— “The Losing,” p. 33

As compared to Fargnoli’s previous two volumes, this work experiments more daringly with disrupted poetic space and non-sequential narratives. In terms of emotional textures and synergies, on the other hand, Then, Something is not necessarily an easy flip-across-the-pages: it evokes death, the fear of death, years of frailty and solitude that are an inherent part of being human. A cruel helplessness lurks in the speaker’s world, and yet fear itself is never empirically embraced. The poet probes the surface of her life and its impermanence to find what might lie beyond, and, like all effective artists, her writing is simultaneously a catharsis and a means to assess and communicate the frightening as well as the inspiring.

None of the questions I spent life asking
Have been answered.
Transcience, evanescence, the dispersal of dust.
God knows where, and is no where.

What good has my life been?

— “After the Dream of My Death,” p. 68

In an interview before the release of this book, the poet once confessed, “At seventy, loss is inevitable, sometimes losses piled on losses. And so is pain. I am always aware that I may have little time left and always aware of how vulnerable a single woman living on the edge of poverty is in our society.” Yet it is not her intention to communicate in a confessional mode; she tries to rely on the silence that her language evokes to unravel the liminal social and worldly realms she knows well. John Keats once spoke of incertitudes as “Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” In a way, Fargnoli has decided to trust uncertainties, though not to the measure of celebrating them. Several poems seem to have come into being precisely because she herself cannot resolve the fear that long hours have imposed upon her last days. Not that hope is missing in these writings which stay — however palely — as much as they can on a shimmering positive color, but the lingering contemplative notes do ultimately beg for something else: what offers itself next beyond the questioning? How far is each poem stretching beyond its scope of subject to expand into a larger world? The “how” and “why” carves out the quintessential humanistic spirit of each poem, while the “what” stays very much elusive or unknown. For some extraordinary rare few who have understood the urgency to transcend death, death is a precise moment of bravery when life defines its own meaning. For it is still life — always life — that drives the force, even if the subject suggests its absence. Life, even the weakest sign of it, is indeed the “then” and the “something.”

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